The Holly and the Ivy

After last weekʼs introduction to the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”, in this post I’ll share another one of my holiday favourites – a traditional English folk song “The Holly and the Ivy”. The song has very old origins that can be traced back to the Middle Ages; it’s known in a variety of local versions which have become standardised only over the past hundred years or so.

This Christmas carol draws on the imagery and symbols that have for centuries been associated with the celebration of Christmas: holly is symbolic of Jesus, whereas ivy represents his mother Mary. The sharp, prickly leaves of holly stand as a reminder of the crown of thorns Jesus was forced to wear; the red berries represent his blood, shed for humanity.

However, there are other interpretations that go further back. Together with mistletoe and Yule tree, both holly and ivy were used in different places around pre-Christian Europe in celebration of pagan deities, and in festivities connected with Winter Solstice. As such, this carol can be seen as one of many examples of the partial survival of pre-Christian beliefs and practices, clothed in Christian terms.

You’ll find more information on this lovely carol at the bottom of the post, along with a quick vocabulary exercise aimed at English language learners.

The holly and the ivy
when they are both full grown,
of all the trees that are in the wood
the holly bears the crown.

The rising of the sun
and the running of the deer,
the playing of the merry organ,
sweet singing in the choir.

The holly bears a blossom,
white as the lily flower,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
to be our sweet Saviour.

The holly bears a berry,
as red as any blood,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
to do poor sinners good.

The holly bears a prickle,
as sharp as any thorn,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas day in the morn.

The holly bears a bark,
as bitter as any gall,
and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
for to redeem us all.

The holly and the ivy,
when they are both full grown,
of all the trees that are in the wood
The holly bears the crown.

(Source: Hymnary)


In the lyrics above some of the words have been highlighted. Match them with the following synonyms or definitions:

  • the hard covering of a tree
  • a literary form of “morning”
  • a small thorn
  • a flower (on a tree or bush)
  • bile / bitterness; rudeness
  • cheerful, lively, jolly

When you’re done, click here for the answer key.


Now that youʼve read and studied this carol a bit, you should definitely listen to it as well. You can find countless videos on YouTube, including both choral, solo and instrumental renditions, but here’s one I like a lot, performed by Gloriae Dei Cantores.

To learn more about the history and folkloric background of this song, visit these websites:

The holly and the ivy: how pagan practices found their way into Christmas

The Life of a Song: “The Holly and the Ivy”

The Holly and the Ivy – Chipping Campden Historical Society

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